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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Hysteric Disease from the Lay Point of View

by C. Fortescue Yonge
Volume 12, no. 9, 1901, pgs. 847-852


"Mother: 'Come along, else you'll be havin' the westeria again!"
"Daughter: 'Nay now, mother, 'tis heasteria ye mean. Doctor said plain as the name of it was heasteria.'
"Mother: 'Lard, child, heast or west, 'tis all one.'"
(Pastorals of Dorset.—M. E. Francis.)

There is much said about hysteria nowadays; not that it is any new thing, only that in times gone by a highly developed form of it would have been considered witchcraft, or possession, and ended in drowning or burning, or else would have been confused with lunacy, and found its finality amid straw and chains at Bedlam.

With hysteria, as with every other ill of mind or body when spoken of, immediately a crowd of interrogations or suggestions are heard, as to possible causes, or causers of the cause.

Find out the cause of this effect,
Or rather say the cause of this defect;
For this effect defective comes from cause.
—Hamlet.

There is hardly any grown person who either does not know personally, or who has not heard of, cases of hysteria. It is as much discussed as are any other subjects of the day, and there are as many ignorant theories about it, as there are fatuous and ill-thought-out remedies.

Our great medical scientists confess that they have a vast field in front of them almost unexplored, as to the unconscious influence of mind upon the body, and in the British Medical Journal, 1897, one writer remarks, "Disease of the body is so much influenced by the mind that in each case we have to understand the patient quite as much as the malady."

Slight cases of hysteria, if taken in time, can often be cured by change, or employment, which we will consider further on, but for advanced or abnormal forms, a specialist must be consulted. This is not a farce, as some onlookers might consider it, regarding an imaginary illness as a simple nothing. To quote a wise physician, "If anyone is so ill as to say he is ill when he is not ill, he must be very ill indeed." It will not do to tell an hysterical patient that there is really nothing the matter, and that he only requires rousing; it is wiser to enter into his feelings, condoling with him, and assuring him that by following the doctor's instructions, he will recover. The sympathy and assurance may rouse his will in the right direction, and that would in itself work a cure.

Mind and body act and re-act on each other. Illness of almost any sort may be induced by fear or constant thought of it—witness the well-authenticated cases of small-pox and cholera brought on in persons by false intimations that beds they slept in had just been vacated by such patients! There are times when the body sways the mind, and other times when the mind sways the body, the two being, as has been forcibly expressed by Miss Cobbe, something like a pair of coupled dogs, sometimes one and sometimes the other obtaining the victory, and sometimes both pulling together in harmony. The brain is a special factor for good or evil in every disease; every organ and function of the body is represented in the brain. Bain, one of the greatest authorities on such subjects, shows that all tissue nutrition is unconsciously influenced from the brain, and that most physiological processes can be arrested mentally by its action.

It is easy to comprehend that many of the undoubted cures at Lourdes, Trèves, and other special centres must be greatly attributed to the influences of the mental attitude, and come under the head of faith-healing, even though some avowed unbelievers are among the patients. Unconsciously they have more faith than they profess. The so called Christian Scientists both in America and England publish an immense number of cases cured by faith-healing, among them being heart-disease, bronchitis, rheumatism, cancer. In former days "touching for the king's evil" and "charms" performed by local "wise women" or witches, must also, when successful, have owed their power to faith. I know of an old woman now in a Wiltshire village who charms away warts, and both she and her patients thoroughly believe in her power. Apropos of this, there is a curious account, I think, given in one of Dr. Schofield's books, of a well-known physician, who was one day, as a stranger, visiting a lunatic asylum. A patient rushed up, begging him to cure the warts with which his hands were covered. The doctor, merely to humour the poor fellow, stroked the hands down, and promised that the warts should soon disappear. Several other persons came with wart-laden hands and the same process was gone through. Some months later he chanced to be again at the same asylum, and to his great astonishment all the persons came forward to thank him, as he had happily cured the warts, which had, in all instances, disappeared within a few days. In that interesting work, The Unconscious Mind, Dr. Schofield says, "In his own consulting room, and in his own practice, is not the physician brought face to face with cures, aye, and diseases too, the cause of which he cannot account for? . . ." What is the effectual agency in quack cures, in semi-scientific cures of all sorts, in faith cures, in relic, charm, and idol cures, in many spa and water cures, in some doctors' cures, perhaps in more than he suspects? After allowing fully for the intrinsic value of the quack remedy, of the mystic formulae, of the millionth dilution, or of the prismatic electricity, for the sulphate of soda or magnesium, and even for the value of real British Pharmacopoeia drugs, we must answer—It is mainly and primarily the power of the unconscious mind over the body. It is this, and this pre-eminently, that is everywhere ignored, however much other minor facts may be extolled.

It is a painful thought to many that illnesses may be induced by the brain, but it has a bright side, because if disease is induced, consciously or unconsciously, so also most assuredly can the cure be. That hysteria is a disease, and may become an illness, and needs, when in an aggravated state, most careful treatment, cannot be too carefully inculcated on the minds of those people who are associated with any hysteric subject. In The Unconscious Mind we read, "The sister of the ward and the house physician settled between them that a certain case in a hospital was hysterical, and the girl was malingering (i.e. shamming). Such a statement takes us back to the dark ages, when all insanity was possession by an evil spirit, for it certainly implies that one with serious nerve disease is simply possessed by a lying spirit . . . The real cause is this: it is seen that the disease is partly of mental origin, and no mind being known or recognized but conscious mind, it follows the patient must be aware of the mind action causing the disease, and is therefore to some extent to blame. The truth which we hope will now be recognized by medical men, is, that all the causative changes take place in the unconscious mind, and that the patient is wholly ignorant of anything but the results in the body—the pain or disease suggested. This is the true solution of the difficulty."

Some forms of hysteria which proceed from a shock are sometimes set right by a repeated shock (Especially in cases wherein partial use of the limbs has been lost) but slight cases may be cured by self-management, or by wise and constant care on the part of relatives. The latter should be advised by a specialist, or should study books on the subject, e.g.:—Richardson's Study of Disease, Carter's Pathology and Treatment of Hysteria, Bain's Power of the Mind over the Body, and Schofield's The Unconscious Mind.

That it is considered often more of a feminine than a masculine malady, is not due so much to a question of sex, but to different training, and greater want of occupation on the part of women. It may seem inconsistent to say this, at the time when professional duties are being more eagerly taken up by women and girls, and yet the disease seems to be increasingly theirs. It will be found, however, I think, on consideration, that most hysteric patients have never had, or have renounced, any strong purpose in life. I think we should consider what part of educational training can be brought to bear on the subject, remembering that prevention is better than cure, and looking on the disease as one of the rocks ahead by which many a life is ruined for a time or longer, and much working power frustrated. One great aim in education should be encouraged to have a settled object in life towards which to work; yet how many boys and girls we see wasting the best years of their life, when they might, with an ideal purpose for the future, be every month increasing their capabilities and enlarging their powers for work and happiness. How many there are who—

. . . Never deeply felt, nor clearly willed,
Whose insight never has borne fruit in deeds,
Whose vague resolves never have been fulfilled;
For whom each year we see
Breeds new beginnings, disappointments new,
Who hesitate, and falter life away.
—Matthew Arnold.

A person slips into an hysteric state gradually, as a rule, generally beginning with slip-shod carelessness in personal habits, in the way of punctual rising, bathing dressing, etc., and that want of care extends to mental habits of reading, praying, thinking. Till anyone unhappily gets "off the line," it is perhaps impossible for him, or her, to realize what immense safe-guards are regular, well-acquired customs, carefully performed. If such fences be broken down, they must be restored with a greater number of firm supports, i.e., rules, than before. One of Miss Yonge's heroines speaks of self-made laws for study as being "so comfortable, a backbone for one's day"; and to carry the simile further, if rules are neglected from indolence and want of moral strength, we put ourselves in danger of spinal paralysis, which affects the whole frame. The first thing towards self-amendment would be to note wherein, during the day or night, one had become accustomed to fail or alter for the worse; habitual duties should be steadily gone through; if low spirits come at any special time, they should be guarded against by that particular hour being filled by some absorbing occupation; sometimes such feelings may arise from over-fatigue, or hunger, and a quiet reading or some food may be the required remedy.

There are general rules of life good for everyone, but especially for the morbid, the vaguely dissatisfied, and the hysterical, type of mind; among these rules are, to put fresh life into old interests, and sometimes to branch out into new ones. Is it not Göethe who says there is always a fascination on the threshold of any new door? Life is so full of treasures, of beautiful sights and sounds, of friends, both our own personal ones, and those who are so, unknown to themselves, through our admiration and love for their character and works; of books, pictures, statuary, buildings, all which we can make ours by appreciation, of varied scenery to invigorate or sooth, that it seems a terrible waste if people wilfully shut their eyes to the joys of living, and only hysterically exist, self-absorbed in their own comfort or woes, saying of all higher things, if indeed able to perceive them, Cui bono?

To sum up this short paper. We believe slight hysteria is curable by the patient's self-management, by care on the part of those with him, by change of scene, but chiefly by occupation; more serious cases must be met by consultation with a specialist, by wisdom eagerly and patiently put into practice, and by endeavouring to arouse the moral strength of mind, which for the time has been lost. Finally, education can be made a preventive to hysteria, by teaching self-control and strengthening the will-power in a right direction, so that it may be recalled and again depended on if a breakdown should ever happen—"A solid will is all too rare;" [Dante] also, by training both boys and girls to enthusiasm for Work, at once the test, the privilege, the happiness, the purifying and invigorating power of humanity.


Proofread by Stephanie H. Feb 2009